Reducing concussions key to future of football


AnotherViewsquareFirst of two parts

NFL fans, week after week, whether in person or on television, basically enjoy watching human car crashes on every play. Wonder how many are aware of the long-term, lasting effect that, despite wearing shoulder pads, helmets and other protective equipment, the hits that keep on coming actually have on the players.

“The old school game with the big hits has gone away,” said retired NFL player Vonnie Holliday.
“The old school game with the big hits has gone away,” said retired NFL player Vonnie Holliday.

Vonnie Holliday played 15 NFL seasons. As a panelist on “The Future of Football” panel during the NABJ convention in Minneapolis this past August, he recalled the “repetitious thud[s]” that he took and gave during his pro career. It’s these hits “we as players have to be concerned about,” he pointed out.

“When I started playing football, you [were] taught to not lower your head,” explained Holliday. “We should’ve known that when you run into another guy, as big and strong as you are, with your face and your head, [getting hurt] could probably happen but we didn’t think about it. The guys I played against were 6’-6”, 6’-7”, 350-360 pounds, and sometimes you hit two of those guys at the same time. Sometimes it’s friendly fire when your teammate comes into the play, and you’re caught in the middle.”

This doesn’t include practices, noted Holliday, who’s 6’-5”. “It’s basically like a car crash, 40 to 50 times a game.”

“You were taught to … light people up” by hitting with your head, he remembered. “It’s hard for guys playing now to change the way you have been doing something for so long.”

And while Holliday isn’t singing an old Willie Nelson tune but with changed lyrics — “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to play football” — he admitted he didn’t want his son playing football before age 12, the same age he began playing: “My son asked me for two years because all his little buddies were playing football [but] at the time I was still playing. I did not let him play until I was done, so I could go out and see who’s coaching or be on that coaching staff to have some input.”

“I feel comfortable [with] my kid playing,” says Holliday. “Now that I am a father, I can honestly say I feel comfortable with the direction and the new focus of the game. I’m OK with my son playing the sport.”

Jon Butler, a top official with Pop Warner youth football, boasted that his organization several years ago took the necessary steps to ensure safety. “You hurt your head, you’re out, period,” he reiterated.

The NFL’s “Heads Up” program, which stresses safety, has been instrumental as well in youth football, said Butler.

Holliday told the MSR that he was first skeptical about the changes in youth football and how it could change the game he learned to play as a youth. He uses the Heads Up program in teaching and coaching his youth football team.

Butler also is extremely critical of the cable reality show Friday Night Tykes, which is about a youth football program in Texas. The show “is everything wrong about Little League sports,” he warned.

“The old school game with the big hits has gone away,” concluded Holliday. “That is sometimes hard to handle for me as a player. I appreciate the changes as a father.”


More from the NABJ “Future of Football” panel next week.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to